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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 6, March 15, 2000

Computer-mediated Communication (CMC) and the Traditional Classroom

by April Reed, Ed.D.


One of the things that makes a classroom work is the discussion that takes place within it. We are social creatures, and conversation -- discussion -- is integral to our lives. The question and answer, give and take, misunderstanding and correction, even the yes and no of discussion helps us to understand each other, the world around us and how we fit into it. If discussion is essential to our social lives, how much more important is it to the educational process?

Through discussion and conversation, whether it follows the Socratic method or is more chaotic in its nature, we endeavor to discover things about each other and to understand the topic at hand. Often, we end up redefining our understanding, and perhaps even ourselves, in relation to the newly acquired knowledge. In a traditional classroom, we have learned to read the nonverbal and social cues of our students, take them into consideration as we teach, and adapt our lessons accordingly. When a student frowns, raises an eyebrow, or whispers to another student nearby, the teacher may think that there's a problem with understanding a concept. When students smile, lean forward, point, talk animatedly or ask questions, the teacher may feel that the student is interested in the topic. Even a snore tells the faculty member something! Given the fact that discussion should be, and often is, essential to learning, there are both advantages and risks to using computer-mediated communication (CMC) as a tool to enhance learning in the traditional classroom.

CMC changes discourse

If we take the need for discussion as a given in the educational setting, and the fact that conversation is essential to our everyday lives, it can be disconcerting to see how much discourse changes when it takes place in the digital medium. CMC can be cumbersome, since so much of it is text-based, especially if there are more than a few participants. Unless the participants are trained or accomplished users, often there are little or no nonverbal indications of the tone of the discussion. All such indicators must be extrapolated from the context of the discussion. Chat (real-time) discussions often seem to lack coherence, and with the text-based nature of chats, discussions can scroll out of view before they can be read. When we use CMC, many of the skills in conversation that we've acquired since childhood are irrelevant, and our audience, by and large, becomes invisible to us.

Yet CMC also changes conversation in positive ways. It allows conversations to become permanent, accessible to others at a later time. It also allows people to hold conversations even if they are not in the same physical location as the other participants. Even more, it also allows the adept user to be part of many conversations at once, even to hold both public and private conversations at the same time. "The persistence of such conversations also opens the door to a variety of new uses and practices: persistent conversations may be searched, browsed, replayed, annotated, visualized, restructured, and recontextualized, with what are likely to be profound impacts on personal, social, and institutional practices" (Erikson, 1999). Indeed, it is one of the best ways to motivate learners. By using CMC to make the instructor accessible to the students, by using it as a forum to show the instructor's personal teaching style and enthusiasm for learning, and for giving students a forum to speak out, electronic discussion tools inspire students to participate, and move the center of learning from the instructor to the student.

CMC as a teaching tool

Research on the uses of CMC and education focuses on those aspects that overcome or supersede more traditional methods of education. One of the benefits of CMC is its ability to liberate education from the constraints of time and distance (Collins & Berge, 1995). Indeed, those who are isolated due to geographical distance, disabilities, shyness, or other barriers to face-to-face communication are able to overcome them using CMC (Parks & Floyd, 1996). It has the advantage of convenience: students and teachers can reach each other at any time and from any place. CMC promotes self-discipline and requires students to take charge of their own learning. It also seems to increase collaboration, increase teachers' roles as facilitators, increase authentic learning or situated cognition, and increase active, creative participation (Boehmer, Levin & Levin, 1996; Collins & Berge; Cox, 1993; Harasim, 1990; Hunt, 1995; Mason & Kaye, 1990; Wild & Winniford, 1993). CMC also seems to promote a more equal distribution of teacher attention per student and to focus both teacher and student attention on the content and structure of responses (Harasim; Hartman et al., 1995; Mason & Kaye, 1990). It also seems that CMC "gives instructors an additional means to keep in touch with their students and to demonstrate that they not only care about the students but are willing to communicate with them" (McComb, 1994, p. 164).

Indeed, CMC can be a valuable tool when the type of CMC is matched to both the type of interaction and the level of complexity. In my own studies of interactions between online tutors and students, chat and instant messaging is best utilized for the lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy, knowledge and comprehension (Reed, 1998). Since the nature of chat and instant message windows causes text to scroll out of view, and the fact that in chat rooms, there can be many conversations occurring at once, simple questions and answers are easiest to handle. Chat rooms or instant messaging can also be used as a place for faculty to hold "virtual office hours" so that students can interact more often and in a closer way with their instructor (Reed, 1998).

However, other studies seem to show that the use of role-play and anonymity through the use of fictitious screen names allow students to utilize higher levels of learning such as reflection, analysis and synthesis (Chester & Gwynne, 1998). Despite the fact that using such synchronous methods can be confusing and disjointed due to turn-taking and scrolling text, it seems that the looser coherence allows for heightened interactivity and language play (Herring, 1999). We need to remember, though, that using chat does require expertise and patience on the part of the instructor, especially if this type of CMC is used to encourage the higher types of learning. But chat can be used also as a place for students to strengthen a sense of being or becoming a community of learners. As such, it can be a place for students to "hang out" and socialize after working on assignments.

Bulletin boards have been shown to be useful for fostering higher types of learning such as application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis (Harasim, 1990; Hartman et al., 1995; Hunt, 1995; Mason & Kaye, 1990; Reed, 1998). Bulletin boards allow for thoughtful and reflective responses, and it is usually easier for novice users to follow conversational patterns and topics. Responses are longer in bulletin board postsl than in chat are more thorough, and more peer-to-peer interaction about content is seen in a bulletin board forum than in a chat room (Reed, 1998). Bulletin boards can therefore be used to discuss content, ask questions that require detailed answers, and provide a place for students to help each other with their learning.

E-mail, the easiest to use of all forms of CMC, is seeing a resurgence as one of the best ways to encourage student learning and interactivity. The Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable recently has held several online workshops (August - October 1999) about the use of e-mail as a teaching tool, and there has been interesting discussion about e-mail being considered as a genre and used as a method to teach composition (Gilbert, 1999). It is evident that e-mail can be used for a number of purposes in instruction, and should not be used just as method to send announcements. E-mail is also the first type of CMC to be used by faculty, and is often seen as the least threatening and easiest to manage (Mitra, et al, 1999).

How to make the most of CMC

In order to make the most of this method, instructors need to learn new skills. Not only that, but instructors need to teach their students (who may be used to wide-open chats or discussion boards on the Web) how to use CMC for educational purposes. Instructors should also realize, just like any other type of teaching method, learning to use CMC takes some time, and it also takes a commitment of time to make the method work in a course.

As a first step, instructors need to determine what type of interactivity they want or need, and what type of CMC is best suited to the task. If the instructor wants to create interactivity between students and him/herself, e-mail is a great method. Instructors can also use instant messaging tools or chat rooms to offer "virtual office hours" to give students greater access to teacher expertise. If the instructor wants to foster interactivity with the content or between students, the use of bulletin boards or chat rooms is the best choice. Since building a community of learners is generally a high priority, make sure that there are activities designed to encourage students to get to know each other and the instructor, and forums/tools set aside to accomplish this task. A chat room is indicated when the instructor wants:

Bulletin boards are indicated when the instructor wants:

Secondly, the instructor needs to provide structure and training for the students. Just because more students are savvy about computers and the Web does not mean that they know how to use the particular electronic discussion tool that the instructor has chosen. It is best to assume nothing, and take a class period to demonstrate to students how to use the tools. It is also important to clearly state up front:

Faculty should work together with the students to set up an acceptable use ("Netiquette") policy for the class. Incorporating discussion about sensitive or "hot" topics can lead to heated debate, and while it doesn't happen very often, "flaming" (verbally aggressive communication that attacks the person rather than the issue) can occur. Students need to know what could be seen as an acceptable or unacceptable communication. It's also a good idea to encourage the use of nonverbal descriptors or "emoticons" ("smiley" faces constructed with punctuation or unusual keyboard characters) to help other users distinguish serious from playful communication (Chester & Gwynne, 1999; Reed, 1998).

Also, it is an important part of the modeling process for instructors to show students what is an acceptable board post for an assignment. For instance, faculty generally want students to make thoughtful contributions, and not just post a note like "I agree" or "Me, too!" While these kinds of posts are perfectly fine for social interaction and fostering a liking for the tools, they are probably not what you want as response to a discussion assignment.

It is also important not to merely create a site or indicate an electronic discussion tool is available. Instructors need to springboard discussions by giving some direction and content; for instance, placing a case study or controversial question on the bulletin board. It is also important for students to have an indication that the instructor both reads and values the interactions. This means occasionally posting on a board, always answering e-mail, and perhaps most importantly, bringing highlights of the electronic discussion back into the regular classroom.

Instructors also need to be prepared for success. Once students get the hang of things, know that faculty are interested and give them valuable feedback, things can really take off. Instructors need to realize that it is not necessary to read every message, just as it is not necessary in a classroom discussion to hear every word that is spoken. All that is needed is to read just enough of the messages to get a sense of the discussion. Show students how to quote pertinent parts of a previous post so that others can follow the thread of a discussion. Appoint students to leadership roles in the discussion; ask them to summarize topics for the rest of the class. Most importantly, instructors need to model the behavior and skills that they want students to gain, and be patient--not only with the students, but with themselves.


Studies over the last few years have shown that students using computer-mediated communication tools for learning show "higher participation rates and greater involvement in class" (Chester & Gwynne, 1998), greater teacher-student interaction (Hartmann, et al, 1995), more time to reflect on the content (Nalley, 1995), and performed better than traditional students on exams (Dutton, et al, 1998; Navarro & Shoemaker, 1999; Schutte, 1998).

However, we must acknowledge and understand that just as some students do well in a college environment and some fail, there are students who are either ill-equipped to handle computer-mediated communication, or who are just not ready to deal with an online environment. Instructors need to think about access, skill level, disabilities, student motivation, and time management. At the very least, "the majority [of recent studies] found that the results were about equal, no matter what kind of gadgets or tools were used to teach students" (Young, 2000) when comparing Web-based courses to the traditional classroom. Remember, however, that we need to consider the fact that since using web elements such as CMC transforms teaching to a large degree, such comparisons, while statistically reliable, may not be statistically valid. Still, it seems that use of CMC gives students benefits not readily accessible elsewhere.

Indeed, while CMC is an integral part of web-based distance education, it seems that CMC, when used as part of a traditional classroom, and used in a manner as has been outlined above, can provide many opportunities. These factors seem to indicate that the use of CMC in educational settings will change the role of teachers and students and their interactions with each other. It may very well be that teachers will no longer be seen as the sole distributors of knowledge nor students merely seen as passive recipients. The ability to reach instructors outside the normal confines of the classroom could lead to strengthening or deepening the teacher-student relationship. CMC is a tool that can be used to reach students in a manner that was not possible a decade ago. It can increase the availability of teacher expertise to the student and it can make those students too shy to address a teacher face-to-face more comfortable with asking questions.

While it is not a replacement for face-to-face communication or instruction, it nevertheless can support pedagogy that is interactive and global in nature. CMC, when used in conjunction with a face-to-face class, can give students a means whereby they can get more of the ideal education that we wish that it was possible for them to receive. That is, it can allow them a means to control the direction of their learning and become more involved in their own education. This is accomplished by equalizing the teacher-student time ratio, by increasing opportunities to ask questions and by not allowing teachers to judge students on anything other than the quality of their messages (Reed, 1998).

However, we must remember that it is not the technology that should be in the spotlight, but the people who use it. It is not the technology itself that is important, but rather its ability to stimulate ideas – ideas that could lead to better education, both online and off.


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About the author: April Reed completed her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at West Virginia University (WVU) in 1998. Her research areas include instructional technology and communication studies, with a special interest in computer-mediated communication and online learning. She has taught communication studies at both WVU and the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Her life in the corporate world has included CD-ROM publishing, regulatory affairs, and desktop publishing. Most recently, she assists and guides faculty in the use of instructional technology at UW-Green Bay.